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Here’s a link to a no-holds-barred negative review of a book I haven’t read, Samantha Young’s On Dublin Street.

http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/430679707?book_show_action=true&page=1

At the risk of coming off like a heartless jerk and a shoddy member of the sisterhood of romance writers, I have to say I love this review. I’ll try to unpack why:

1. Let’s consider the basest motivation: spiteful jealousy. It’s possible that some part of me is thinking, “Ha, take that, writer whose book is way more commercially successful than any of mine!” I’m not aware of that being a factor, but it seems hubristic to claim I’m completely above that kind of pettiness, so I’ll put that out there and let it sit.

2. Writing quality: the review is articulate, well-organized, and funny as hell.

Over and over, each time there’s a bad-review kerfuffle, I’ve heard the assertion that negative reviewers are just jealous failed novelists, or, less specifically, people who engage in destruction because they’re incapable of creativity.

Hogwash. A well-argued, entertaining review–positive or negative–is a product of skill, hard work, and creative spark, and it deserves our respect. Even a single snarky zinger takes talent and inspiration to craft. (Seriously. I’m a novelist, and I put a lot of time and work into what I write, and I can guarantee you I will never come up with as substantive a contribution to our culture as Dorothy Parker’s “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force.” Or Oscar Wilde’s  “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.” Or Marion Adams’s observation that Henry James “chewed more than he bit off.” [Burn! Love that one.])

3. Catharsis. This is an example of the bad-review subset that I think of as the “Emperor’s New Clothes” review. I’m sure we’ve all had the discordant experience of reading a book and thinking “This made the best-seller lists / has three hundred five-star reviews / won a RITA / is what Salon.com bloggers deem worthy of praise? Are you kidding me??” When you’re feeling out of step with the majority (or prominent) opinion, there’s a visceral relief in finding a review that emphatically confirms your own perception of reality.

And like many cathartic reviews, this one derives much of its impact from…

4. Passion + outrage. What’s wonderful about the outraged review (see also Jenny Trout’s epic chapter-by-chapter gutting of the Fifty Shades books, for example) is that the outraged reviewer cares. The subtext of the outraged review isn’t “Oh, ha ha ha, let me exercise my wit at the expense of this subpar romance novel.” It’s “Dammit, romance novels need to be better than this. I expect more from romance.” There’s no way that’s not a good thing.

Demanding readers, whether they demand competent sentence mechanics, better representation of under-represented populations, more thorough world-building, or more progressive male-female power dynamics, are crucial to the continuing growth of any genre. The readers who step up and say “Not good enough. I expect more” are the readers who push us–however uncomfortably–to do better.

Being the embattled and frequently dismissed genre that we are, we’ve gotten pretty good at making eloquent cases for the value of romance. But sometimes these arguments go a little far in generalizing and flattening out the genre. “As long as people are reading, that’s all that matters” and “Quality is subjective anyway, so it’s really just a question of personal preference” are arguments I’ve seen more than once in these discussions.

I’m not crazy about those particular arguments because they seem to preclude real critical engagement. I’d rather work from the assumption that our genre is robust enough to withstand vigorous criticism of individual works. And “vigorous criticism” isn’t always going to come out tactful or constructive. Outrage and snark have a place in the big conversation.

So does this mean I’d enjoy reading a snarky takedown of one of my own books? Heck no; I’m not that thick-skinned. What it does mean is that I don’t begrudge anyone else their enjoyment of snark directed my way, and I don’t begrudge any reviewer’s right to write it. As long as you’re not emailing it to me (please don’t email it to me), it’s easy enough for me to stay ignorant of, anyway.

A couple (or four) things more–

1. If Samantha Young did see the review linked above, I think she’d have every right to feel hurt and angered by it. Not “butthurt;” not overly indulgent of her “precious fee-fees;” not any of those other terms we employ these days to de-legitimize someone’s emotional response. Presumably she invested a lot of herself into the writing of the book; it’s only natural that it would sting to see her work emphatically trashed.

It’s not reviewer Rachel (BAVR)’s job to consider Young’s feelings, but that’s not because Young’s feelings aren’t valid–it’s because that’s just the nature of the author/reviewer divide. I don’t think we need to look for evidence that Young (or E.L. James, or whoever) is a petty or malicious or otherwise undeserving person in order to justify the harshness of the review.

As long as she doesn’t air her grievances in a way that (intentionally or not) results in her fans harassing the reviewer, then I don’t think it’s my or any other reader’s place to suggest a poorly-reviewed author “pull up her big-girl panties” or “dry her tears with her royalty statements” (if she’s at the royalty-statement level of success) or anything of that sort.

1a. I think the whole “console yourself with your royalty statements” thing is a fallacy. If you’re the kind of writer who places a lot of stock in reviews, I don’t think there’s any level of commercial success that insulates you from the sting of the bad ones. Thus I don’t buy into the idea (which is maybe more common among authors who review than among readers who review) that it’s somehow ethically better to savage a wildly successful book than one by a little-known debut author.

Besides, if the reviewer’s goal (or at least one of them) is to warn readers away from bad books, then it shouldn’t matter who the book came from.

2. Is there such a thing as a “bullying” review? I don’t think so. I have a pretty stringent definition of bullying (one day, if your luck runs out, I’ll tell you the story of what grades 6 through 8 were like for me) and I don’t think a review, which the author has the option of not reading, rises to that level.

2a. Is there such a thing as a review that’s too mean, though? Yeah, I think there is, although I haven’t yet figured out how and where I draw that line. A while back I read a post by the author Sarah Rees Brennan in which she mentioned a YA author friend of hers whose first review on Goodreads–right at the top of the review list; the first one anybody browsing her book page encountered–said simply “Why are all YA authors fat?” I don’t think that’s bullying, specifically, but I do think it’s a BS usage of a review space, and I won’t weep for free speech if Goodreads takes a “review” like that down.

Similarly, that sneering New Republic Fifty Shades slam-fest of a few months back (which was technically a review of a book about Fifty Shades) crossed the line from fiery criticism to gratuitous nastiness in its generalizations about FSOG readers and its insistence on referring to E.L. James by her private-life name rather than the name under which she writes. It’s the New Republic’s right to print something like that, but doing so made me think a lot less of them.

On the other hand, a little while after reading the New Republic article I read a brutal NY Times review of the latest Adam Sandler film and didn’t find it objectionable at all, and I’m not sure how I’d make the distinction. It’s not just that the NR piece got into personal criticism, because there were some fairly personal jabs at Sandler in the NYT review too. So I don’t know. I may just be inconsistent in my positions.

And that’s enough out of me. I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts. Do you enjoy bad reviews? Do you enjoy all bad reviews, or are there some that go too far–and if the latter, where do you draw that line? Do you think Adam Sandler is funny, and people should stop picking on him? Let me know.

 

I know; I was supposed to be back with a post on why I think bad reviews are valuable and worthwhile. It’s about 2/3 drafted, but I keep thinking of new things or changing my mind about existing things, and so I keep tinkering. At the moment I’m thinking of scrapping what I have and starting over.

(Advice to beginning writers: don’t be a tinkerer. Take it from me; it’s a terrible way to write.)

So I’ll jump ahead and talk about a smaller, more manageable subject: street teams.

Yesterday on Twitter, the author Lauren Dane asked what people thought of street teams, and helpfully storified the responses. There were a number that I felt some agreement with, but none that precisely articulated my own position, which goes like this:

I’m all for people feeling evangelical about a book, including any and all of my books. But the street-team model presumes that evangelical response for every book. And that’s just not how reading works. There are people who loved my first book, but didn’t care for my second. There are people who liked the first two, but were disappointed in the third. There are people who loved all three, and probably at some point in the future I’ll write something that lets them down, too.

And I’m sure most authors who use street teams are careful to say “You’re under no obligation to give a good review, or talk up a book you don’t feel enthusiastic about,” but human nature being what it is, I think it must be pretty awkward and difficult for a street-team member to accept the free books or whatever swag comes their way without doing some promo in exchange. I can all-too-easily imagine a street-teamer thinking, “Well, I didn’t love it, but it won’t kill me to talk it up a little.” Or even worrying, outright, that she might be dropped from the team, or might incur the wrath of other team members, if she decides to sit out a particular book’s promo blitz. (The wrath of street-teamers is no joke, as a number of review kerfuffles have now shown us.)

So even in its most benign form, with an author who actively discourages attacking reviewers and who articulates a no-obligation policy, I feel there’s just too much built-in motive for artificial enthusiasm. And that’s not what I want, as an author, as a reader, or as someone who cares about the integrity of our genre and of books in general.

(Steel-trap-memoried readers will recall that I gnashed my teeth some about promotion and integrity last summer, when a number of generous authors offered to promote A Woman Entangled–which at the time of the offer none of them had yet read–for me while I was laid low by my father’s very recent death. The question of how to balance one’s wish for commercial success with one’s concepts of integrity is a kind of rabbit hole down which a writer can spend an awful lot of time, it turns out.)

 

In the interest of promoting a climate in which readers feel free to review frankly with no fear of reprisal or secret passive-aggressive hostility, here’s my position on reviews, as well as on some related issues.

The short version:

  1. I don’t ever look at Amazon or Goodreads reviews unless a reader emails me with a link to her/his review.
  2. I don’t google myself, and currently I don’t use Google Alerts.
  3. I believe negative reviews are a crucial part of a healthy Romanceland ecosystem. This includes:
    • snark-filled reviews
    • simple “thumbs down” reviews that don’t elaborate on the flaws
    • lengthy reviews that employ critical theory
    • reviews with and without .gifs
    • negative reviews of my own books
  4. I don’t use a street team (I’m uncomfortable with even the more benign incarnations) and I doubt I have the kind of fan base that could be mobilized to attack reviewers. But in case I’m wrong about that, Fans of mine, please know that I don’t ever want you attacking people for leaving me negative reviews.

The long version:

This might be long enough that I need to break it up into more than one post. We’ll start, anyway, with the evolution of my position on reading reviews, and with it, my gradual understanding/appreciation of the concept of author-free spaces.

So. Once, in the primordial dawn of my career as a published author, I commented on a reader’s review. It was fairly innocuous as these things go – it was a very nice review, and I, not yet grasping that not everyone who loves your book wants to be your new best friend, bounced into that space and said something about liking the review.

This wasn’t the first time I’d interacted with this reader – we’d exchanged emails over the logistics of a giveaway she’d entered, and then I’d seen somewhere (twitter?) that she’d liked the book, and I’d said something to her about that, and so by this time I suspect I came off as flat-out creepy and stalkerish. Her reply to my comment on the review was perfectly polite, but it was obvious I’d made her uncomfortable, and I hate making people uncomfortable, so I decided to never again comment on, or like, a reader’s review. (I know there are readers who appreciate getting “likes,” but I’d rather risk disappointing them than risk making the other kind of reader feel like their author-free space has been ickily intruded on.)

Similarly, when my first book got reviewed at All About Romance, they emailed me to let me know, and also included a link to the discussion thread for my book. There was a discussion thread for my book! People had read A Lady Awakened, and had things to say about it, and a lot of people liked it very much! It was thrilling to read at first, but right around the time I got to the second page, it really sank in that these people were not expressing their opinions with me as the intended audience, and that in fact they’d probably be creeped out if they knew I was looming over the conversation like some obsessive, validation-craving Big Brother.

I quit reading the Lady Awakened discussion thread, and, when A Gentleman Undone came out some months later and AAR emailed me to let me know that book had a thread too, I never looked at it. In general I just feel better about myself if I keep out of those spaces; plus by avoiding the Amazon and Goodreads reviews, I also avoid the possibility of flipping out and having a high-visibility meltdown over a bad review. Wins all the way around.

Gradually I’ve cut back on my reading of blog reviews as well. I used Google Alerts in the beginning, and was Alerted to some tremendously gratifying reviews. I’m still grateful to have seen them, and even more grateful to have been led to some wonderful blogs I might not otherwise have discovered.

But I’d heard a lot from other writers about how avoiding all reviews was beneficial to their sanity, so around the beginning of last year I turned off my Google Alerts. And I haven’t really missed them, nor have I felt like seeking out reviews. I’ll still read one if a reader emails me with a link, or occasionally if one hits my radar on social media. But otherwise I tend to stay away from reviews or discussions of my books, and it seems to work pretty well for now.

I suppose I could have omitted the last six paragraphs and skipped straight to telling you that I support your right to leave me bad reviews. But there might be readers for whom “I’m not likely to even know you left me a bad review” makes a better assurance than “I promise I won’t hold your bad review against you,” and I want those readers, as well as the ones to whom candor comes more easily, to feel free to review frankly.

Okay, I’m over 800 words so I’ll cut this off here. In my next post I’ll finish up with thoughts on bad reviews and also talk a little bit about street teams and maybe some related subjects.

Last week a member of our romance community, author Jackie Barbosa, lost her teenage son in a car accident.

As the mother of a child the same age, I was originally going to write next, but I don’t think it really makes a difference. You don’t have to be a parent to have some inkling of the devastation Jackie and her family are experiencing now.

It’s hard to know how to show sympathy, or be of use to a grieving family, when your acquaintance is virtual. But author Courtney Milan had an idea: during this time when book promotion is probably the last thing on Jackie’s mind, maybe the rest of us could step up and talk about her books, and take at least a part of that burden off her shoulders.

Jackie writes contemporary romance, historical romance, and erotica. Her complete list of books is here.

HUTCA book of hers that I’ve read and enjoyed is the novella Hot Under the Collar, a spicy but surprisingly sweet story of romance between a vicar and a fallen woman. Particularly charming is the journey of hero Walter Langston, who falls into the job half-reluctantly, with no real interest in scripture or delivering sermons, and to his own surprise finds himself growing invested in, and eventually skilled at ministering to, the people who make up his parish community.

Jackie’s site has a lot of samples, and a few downloadable free reads as well. I encourage you to give one of her books a try.

And if you’d like to donate to the memorial fund for her son, Julian, author Beverley Kendall has the details, with a PayPal link, on her blog. Donations in any amount are appreciated.

 

 

 

Not one, not two, but three of my favorite historical-romance authors have books out this month! In case they’re not already on your radar, allow me to put them there.

The Jade Temptress book coverThe Jade Temptress by Jeannie Lin, released March 1.

Dramatic backstory: In December, Lin blogged candidly about some disappointing news: sales for The Lotus Palace, first book in her new series, had been so poor that Harlequin canceled the print release of the series follow-up, The Jade Temptress, opting to publish it in e-book form only.

This was a demoralizing development for those of us who love Lin’s writing, those who appreciate her candor and wish her well, and those who’d like to see more diversity in the settings and stories of historical romance. Pretty much everyone I know who’s tried one of Lin’s books has become a fan; it was frustrating that more people weren’t trying her.

Then, a plot twist: Harlequin put The Lotus Palace on sale for 99 cents – and it sold. It sold enough copies to land on the USA Today bestseller list. Lin blogs about that slightly surreal experience here.

So now The Jade Temptress is out, and not only am I looking forward to reading it, but I’m hoping hard that a good number of the e-book readers who snapped up The Lotus Palace will move on to the sequel.

And here comes my quick sales pitch: if you like historical romance, but worry that Tang Dynasty China is too far removed in time and courtship conventions to give you all the familiar pleasures you look for in romance, well, first of all I hear you because those are the same reasons I don’t read Medieval.

And second of all, I think you need to read Jeannie Lin. If you like formidable women and and upstanding men who have a weakness for formidable women; if you like pulse-pounding action scenes; if you like vivid world-building and plots that turn on questions of honor, then I think her books are for you.

(If you want to start by dipping your toes in, I recommend her novella Capturing the Silken Thief, which sets up the world of The Lotus Palace and The Jade Temptress.)


Sweet Disorder book coverSweet Disorder by Rose Lerner, out March 18

Dramatic backstory: Lerner debuted in 2010 with the utterly charming marriage-of-convenience Regency In for a Penny. It got superlative reviews and she was voted Best Debut Author in the year-end poll at All About Romance. Her career was off to an auspicious start.

Then her publisher, Dorchester, already in financial trouble, started crumbling in earnest. They pushed back publication of her follow-up book, and pushed it back again, and finally released it in trade paperback instead of romance-friendly mass-market, shortly before they went under completely. Lerner talks about the Dorchester experience, with its feelings of helplessness and irrational shame, toward the end of this interview.

So we’ve had a long wait for another Rose Lerner book, but it’s finally here, and I’m lucky enough to have read it already and I can tell you it’s a delight.

And now my sales pitch for Rose Lerner: her books are full of historical detail that gives them a sort of sensuous texture (does that make sense? I’m not sure how else to put it); and more than this, her writing is vibrant with authorial affection and enthusiasm, both for the little research oddities she’s managed to weave into her story (Sweet Disorder‘s plot turns on a bit of small-town electoral trivia: a widow’s prospective husband will get to vote in the upcoming election, so both Whigs and Tories are scrambling to matchmake her to a man of their choosing), and for the characters with whom she peoples that story, right down to the two Mr. Wrongs who inevitably have to get beaten out by our hero. (I really want that confectioner to meet a nice girl with a fearsome sweet tooth.)


Fool me Twice book coverFool me Twice by Meredith Duran, out March 25

Slightly-less-dramatic backstory: I’ve said before that if for some reason I had to give up reading every romance writer but one, Duran would be my keeper. It’s probably still true.

But I have to admit I’ve fallen two and a half books behind on her oeuvre. I think where I stumbled was when she released At Your Pleasure, which, departing from her usual Victorian setting, took place in early Georgian times. I don’t know a lot about early Georgian times, so, like someone who hesitates to pick up a book set in the Tang Dynasty, I kept finding something else to read.

(Also I didn’t like the cover – not only did the woman not look Georgian, but she looked rather vapid, and not like someone I wanted to read about. You’d think I’d know better than to judge a romance book by its cover, but I do think it may have been a factor.)

It’s not that I ever decided not to read the book; other things just kept leapfrogging it on the TBR pile. And before I knew it her next book was out – That Scandalous Summer, another Victorian – and I thought, “No, I still have to read At Your Pleasure before I read this one,” and again, I kept finding other things to read.

But Fool me Twice, sequel to That Scandalous Summer, is out this month and I’m hearing a lot of good buzz. And it was on sale for $1.99, and so was TSS, so I gave up (for now) on AYP and bought and started TSS.

And now I’m mystified as to why this book didn’t get the buzz that Fool me Twice is getting, because it has everything I love about Meredith Duran’s writing: thoughtful, intelligent characters I care immediately about; imaginative turns of phrase; substantial questions about how to live a meaningful life. Also great chemistry between a couple of incorrigible flirts :)

As of this writing both That Scandalous Summer and Fool me Twice are still $1.99 in ebook. If you haven’t read Duran, this is a great opportunity to see why she’s such a favorite of mine.


What books are coming out this spring that you’re excited about? And if you had to give up every romance author but one, who do you think would be your keeper?

ALL of my Audiobooks on Sale

Edited to add: Okay, it turns out all three of my audiobooks are 50% off at Tantor! A Gentleman Undone hereA Woman Entangled here. And it looks like the sale lasts through 2/28.

I know; I know; it’s been forever since I posted anything here. This last year has been a rough one (if I can get sanguine enough about it, one of these days I’ll tell you the story of My Jaw-Dropping Mistake That Ruined Christmas For The Entire Family, which is one of the few chapters from last year that even bears sharing), and I’ve tried to funnel what writing energy I’ve had into book-writing instead of blogging.

But I wanted to let you know that the audiobook of A Lady Awakened is currently 50% off at Tantor Audio. Not sure how long the sale will last, but if you’re a fan of audiobooks, that seems like a good price.

If you haven’t read A Lady Awakened yet, and want some convincing, here’s a very nice recent review.

Giveaway at Dear Author

The review website Dear Author is doing book giveaways all this month, and I’m one of the giver-awayers today. You can enter to win one of 5 copies of A Woman Entangled, or one set of audiobooks (one copy of A Lady Awakened and one of A Gentleman Undone) – as well as romantic suspense by Rachel Kall, and Scottish romance by Tarah Scott.

The Woman Entangled giveaway is open to international entries; the audiobook giveaway is US only. I’m not sure for how long the giveaway runs, but it’s not for very long. “A few days” is what the page says.

Go win some books!

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